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11 Ways to Usher the NFL, NBA, MLB into the New Web

I am a sports nut. That shouldn't be news if you follow me here or on Twitter / Facebook. I also spend my professional life on the web and looking at new technologies. In part because it is fun to think about - and in part due to personal frustrations - I'll put those two together and brainstorm how the major leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB) should improve their online product. Note: obviously there are significant issues: content rights, ownership, players unions, etc. Let's make the (ridiculous!) assumption those don't come into play or that everyone wakes up and agrees these are important for leagues' future health (NBA and MLB more so than the NFL).

1. Get an online identity.

Sounds simple and the below ideas are clearly focused on helping drive an identity. But look at these screenshots from NBA.com and NFL.com. I have no idea why I would visit these sites as opposed to ESPN.com or Twitter. They are mixtures of ads, promotions, stores, and news.

These sites are highly trafficked (see August list here) - but in August (when interest is at its max) NFL.com still represents just 40% of Yahoo's traffic and 50% of ESPN's. The brand is obviously there but the sites are not much more than navigational hubs.

The below ideas hopefully help create an identity and a reason for fans to visit and engage with their online properties.

2. That identity should be social.

I believe these websites should have four primary goals - probably in this order:

A. Promote the league, teams, players and partners. B. Engage the fans. C. Covert visitors to new properties / touch points: Twitter Followers, Facebook Fans, mobile users, etc.... recognize that fan activity is far broader than on your site. D. Drive revenue (store, ads, etc)

The best way to directly drive points 'B' and 'C' and to indirectly impact 'A' and 'D' is by fully integrating social. More on the next point. But at the highest level, this means that the league sites should look more like a robust, branded Facebook Fan Page and less like your local newspaper site. Content should be dynamic, personalized and interact-able... not flat like your a local news article.

3. View me as an individual fan. Not a pageview.

Step 1 in making the sites more social is to view users as individuals... not as pageviews. How? Lets reimagine what NFL.com could be:

- via Facebook Connect, it recognizes my identity and prompts me to Like the NFL on FB - it then asks me to like my favorite team(s) - by 'liking', I automatically subscribe to team's Facebook page (already subscribed to NFL) - now NFL.com can feature content specifically crafted to my preferences and to my Facebook friends - And they can quickly translate this from league to team to players

Those 20M uniques in August are suddenly *much* more valuable as connected users. And those 20M uniques are just the tip of the traffic iceberg... why? Those users are now:

- They are viral (hello Facebook Ticker!)

- They are shareable: instantly the NFL can have massive followings on Facebook & Twitter and can share that traffic with their teams.

- They are engageable: once you have users become fans / followers, the league can more effectively / efficiently engage with fans (and market / promote).

And now content flow can go both ways: on and off NFL.com. Just look at the Washington Post Social Reader as a good example.

4. Welcome social media. Don't fear it. In fact, mandate it.

Encourage teams and players to use social media. Hell, mandate it. In the above example, you could have a Facebook page with 10M Dallas Cowboys fans. That's as powerful as the team makes it.

Each team should have an official Facebook Page and Twitter account that is consistently named, branded, etc. The page should aggregate / promote the Facebook / Twitter pages of its players.

Fans should be able to subscribe to entire teams through a single follow button (ie a Dallas Cowboys officially curated Twitter list).

The league and its teams will clearly worry about player etiquette on Facebook & Twitter. But: they are going to use the platforms whether or not the league likes it... and the players will listen (and behave) if they appreciate the power of building a following & brand via social media. Bring in industry leaders to give crash courses in social. Make it a mandatory part of the rookie symposiums.

The end result:

- dynamic content that is unique to each league / team (unlike their news clippings) - bigger followings for the league, team and players - real-time connections with fans who are now more deeply engaged - more control by the league and team

5. View the league as a set of teams. And teams as a set of players.

Connected to the two points above, think of the league sites as a collection of teams. And while it is the league's duty to deliver league-wide news and promotions, it is also beneficial to promote each team. The above examples accomplished: - building a social following for the league itself - using that to promote individual teams - and then using each team to promote its own brand and players

ESPN is beginning to figure this out with their personalities. See example here.

And just as the league should promote horizontally - the teams should also be asked to connect to others. Lightweight ways include:

- making sure all mentions are linkable (seems simple but so rarely done) - official pages include links to other teams (on Facebook via favorite pages, Twitter via Lists)

6. Every league & team should hire a czar.

See the above screenshot. Enough said.

7. Go mobile.

The leagues are getting quite good at standalone apps (particularly MLB). But the same approach to social should be applied to mobile:

- There should be league apps. - There should be standardized team apps.

Note: why team apps? for starters, the experience is better within a single app and the team can more proactively tailor content and brand. Secondly, traffic will be better (app store findability, promotion through team fan pages, etc).

- Those team apps should feature dynamic content beyond the box score (everyone has that). - Leverage the above points to showcase team and player content - Allow users to engage directly: follow, post, like, Q&A, etc. - Deliver push notifications: alerts from favorite player. Scores. Injuries. Etc.

Those stand-alone apps should also pertain to in-stadium experiences / promotions. That obviously requires 3G and/or wifi to work in stadiums... which is a leap of faith today.

8. Make content available.

Figure out how to get around the rights issues and make as much content available as possible. Leverage the league website, Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, etc.

Full game coverage: allow me to subscribe to a team or league as I can with MLB At Bat (a perennial top grossing application.

Clips: make clips available and let users remix & share them. It's a viral dream. You can even protect branding by controlling the experience either onsite or as a Facebook app.

Highlights: The NBA is great at releasing Top 10 Plays from Yesterday on their Facebook page. This becomes more powerful as their presence grows... and even more powerful as the team presences grow. My willingness to share a specific clip from my favorite team / player is far greater than from across the entire league.

9. Engage. Don't just push.

Content is now a two-way street. Build experiences that encourage interaction by fans. And encourage personalities to be interactive. Learn from CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell - who really phenomenal on Twitter.

10. Welcome ESPN and the new media. 11. Similarly, concede what you won't win.

Figure out strategically where it makes sense to leverage other properties and brands. In many cases, collaboration / aggregation will create a better product (again, see Washington Post's Social Reader which incorporates content beyond WashingtonPost.com).

In other cases, it will allow the leagues to redeploy resources, focus elsewhere and still roll out better products. For instance, is the NFL really going to win fantasy sports? That's ESPN's domain. Work together and build ancillary products that support the experience and league.

More reading:

- ESPN Brings Twitter into Fantasy Football App. Getting Closer. - Much to Learn from the NBA’s Facebook Fan Page - My Response to Mark Cuban’s: Does ESPN.com Have a Twitter Problem? - ESPN’s Mobile Application Strategy (and Ad Campaign to Match)

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

MLB At Bat Now Streams all MLB Games to iPhone

MLB.com's At Bat 2009 iPhone App released a major update today that allows subscribers of both MLB.tv and the MLB At Bat app to stream all regular season games via the iPhone. Until today, At Bat subscribers were able to only watch the Game of the Day.

I am a paying subscriber of both and have reviewed both MLB products - in short, the video and audio quality of both services are unparalleled (in fact, no other offering even exists in other sports / leagues). The iPhone streaming is particularly impressive as it occurs both over 3G and Wifi - and the quality is not degraded in the same way that many other mobile video services are.

Hopefully the NFL, NBA and television networks are downloading these apps.

mlb-at-bat-upgrade1

iPhone 3GS Video & Camera Demo: Using MLB.tv

Oh how technology and digital media have advanced. Below is a video demonstration:

- capturing an HD broadcast of a live Red Sox game (streamed from MLB.tv, through my computer, and onto the television) - the video was shot on the iPhone 3GS's new video capture - and uploaded to Youtube wirelessly via the iPhone... in less than 30 seconds

On the iPhone and the computer, the video quality is far better than what is displayed on Youtube... but it is still far from HD and, despite TechCrunch's argument otherwise, products like the Flip Mino HD still have a role within the market (for now).

Also worth noting, the iPhone 3GS's camera is markedly better than the previous model's - both in focus, function and output. This photo also does a better job conveying the quality of MLB.tv's broadcast... a product I am so thoroughly impressed with that I chose to cancel my Comcast MLB Package subscription after five years:

red-sox-vs-braves mlb.tv

NBA Launches Player Cam, Facebook Connect for Conference Finals

The NBA clearly has MLB.tv envy...And it's not a bad thing! (now if only the NFL would start experimenting)

I have written before that Major League Baseball is the only major sports league to grasp the web and really innovate with MLB.tv and their successful iPhone App. Well the NBA is starting to test the waters.

During tonight's Conference Finals, viewers can actually follow the game entirely on NBA.com with:

nba-player-cam Four-Way Player Cams - Follow Dwight Howard or Lebron James directly - You can also choose between Robo Cam and Action Cam - Swap audio and customize the tiled screen layout (very much like MLB.tv) - No high definition option - but you can view in full screen

Socialize with Facebook, Twitter & MySpace While watching the in-game player cams, you can login with Facebook, Twitter or MySpace and converse on NBA.com. The integration doesn't look great and is far from YouTube's Facebook Connect implementation, but it's a good first step and, I believe, the first pro league integration of Facebook Connect.

Sponsorship Of course, the experience is ad-supported (by Axe Dry) but the integration is slick and non-intrusive.

Marketing Case Studies: Manny Ramirez & Dodgers; Mexico & Swine Flu

Thursday's New York Times profiled two messy and complex marketing cases that remind us how quickly things can change and how dangerous relying on any one revenue-stream or person can be:

1. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Manny Ramirez

The Dodgers entire marketing and merchandising campaign was centered around their best player, Manny Ramirez - whom they just signed to a two-year, $45m contract. On Thursday, Manny was suspended for violating MLB's steroid policy and will miss 50 games... not only paralyzing the Dodger's offense, but crushing the organization's marketing campaigns.

2. Mexico, Tourism and the Swine Flu

"It will take a long time for would-be vacationers to forget those images, but the Mexican government is trying to help them, with a multimillion-dollar campaign to restore Mexico’s brand, as hotels cut rates 50 to 70 percent....

When Mexican officials announced almost $2.1 billion in tax breaks and loans to help the Mexican economy recover from the residual effects of the flu, the tourism industry received special attention — loans for hotels and airlines, cuts in airport and port fees, and tax write-offs for businesses — worth, all told, $450 million. The reason is clear. Foreign tourism earned Mexico $13.3 billion last year. Tourism employs more than two million people and accounts for about 8 percent of the economy."

13 iPhone Apps I Want Developed (Google, ESPN, FriendFeed)

Enter email address to subscribe via email:

1. GMail The improved Gmail iPhone site is just that: improved. But a true GMail iPhone App would allow fuller cusotmizations, run faster, better integrate calendars and contacts... and soon utilize the new push notification systems of iPhone 3.0.

2. Google Reader / RSS I use my iPhone as much for email as I do for content consumption. A Google Reader App would instantly be my starting point for iPhone-based web browsing. It would also increase my activity on Reader - particularly the social aspects (sharing, commenting, etc).

3. AdWords / AdSense Ever been without a computer and needed data associated with AdWords or AdSense? Happens to me all the time... Better yet, the ability to lightly manage campaigns (particularly with AdWords).

4. Facebook Connect + iTunes & App Store This is a pipe dream, but I would love an Apple built app that, via Facebook Connect, created personalized histories and storefronts for iTunes and the App Store. I find both stores increasingly unusable due to the overwhelming inventory... Facebook Connect is the solution.

5. ESPN Fantasy Is there a better use case for an iPhone App? Fantasy sports require on-demand knowledge and management. Fantasy sports players would never put their iPhone down again. 6. FriendFeed Perhaps this would be solved for me by a Google Reader App... but FriendFeed would provide more social functionality and would certainly make me a more loyal, active user.

7. Techmeme I visit Techmeme daily. It is particularly difficult to navigate on the iPhone. A simple iPhone App would make the on-Techmeme / off-Techmeme navigation more efficient. It would also allow for history and search functionality.

8. Starbucks I drink a lot of coffee and use a lot of Starbucks' free wifi. Some sort of location finding application that provided coupons and incentives would be very appetizing.

9. MLB.TV MLB.tv is my favorite product of 2009: amazing HD streaming quality with every conceivable feature request (fantasy tracking, four-game split screens, DVR controls, etc). I would pay an additional $10-$20 to get the streaming on my iPhone (when 3.0 arrives).

10. Google Analytics Makes total sense. All I need is basic statistics.

11. Aardvark I love Aardvark... but my most frequent use-case is when I am away from my computer. With an iPhone App, I would use Aardvark far more routinely and it would be my Q&A service of choice (perhaps replacing Yelp and others on mobile).

12. Wordpress.org To the best of my knowledge, there is not an equivalent of the great Wordpress.com iPhone App for blogs running Wordpress.org... if there is, please let me know. If there isn't, please build it.

13. USPS Tracking The FedEx App is terrific and solves a big need - and with 3.0 it will be even better. I would love the same for USPS (but certainly do not expect this to be built!).

Economic Woes Impacting MLB Season Tickets

Wait until the trade deadline approaches during the summer... as teams have battled through poor attendance, dwindling jersey sales, and so forth. Teams like the Detroit Tigers (payroll of $138m in 2008 - third behind the Yankees and Mets) will have fire sales to cope with the economic struggles.

In the last two days, local papers have covered struggling ticket sales for two high budget teams:

Detroit Tigers - 2008 Payroll of $138m, 3rd highest payroll in MLB - Season ticket woes (Free Press):

Last year, the Tigers had sold some 27,000 season tickets at this time. This year, that number has dropped to roughly 15,000. Ron Colangelo, the Tigers' vice president of communications, would not confirm or deny the 15,000 figure, saying: "We're going to let our sales and marketing efforts continue through Opening Day."

San Francisco Giants - 2008 Payroll of $76m, 16th highest payroll in MLB - Season ticket woes (Mercury News):

The Giants say they have sold fewer than 20,000 season-ticket plans, off nearly 25 percent from their All-Star Game season in 2007. But club officials believe they will avoid the catastrophic projections that are haunting other major league cities, and through walk-up sales and promotions, they are hopeful their season attendance will come close to matching the 2.8 million fans they drew last season.

"We're hanging tough," said Staci Slaughter, the club's vice president of communications. "We're in a much better position than a lot of teams."

tigers

NBA Borrows $175M for 15 Teams ($11.66M Each)

Professional sports are not immune to the economic downturn.We saw the Arena Football League close indefinitely. MLB free agents are signing shorter, smaller deals (except for Mark Teixeira and CC Sabathia). And several NBA teams are shopping star players to save money (ie the Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Hornets.

Now word comes out that the NBA has secured $175,000,000 to help support 15 teams who apparently need the assistance. It will be interesting to see how this affects the trade deadline (expect lots of major contracts to move) and this summer's free agency. The financing comes at over 8% interest - so it is clear that this was a needed move... and considering the NBA's health as compared to Major League Baseball - I wonder what will happen when (not if) MLB attendance and advertising falls... big names and contracts will move quickly and at pennies on the dollar.

The NBA is set to borrow $175 million Feb. 26, marking one of the first league financings since the implosion of the credit markets last fall. The money, which will be available to 15 teams, supplements an existing $1.7 billion leaguewide credit facility that uses the NBA's media contracts as collateral to secure loans for the clubs. The NBA surveyed its teams, and 15 responded they would like to tap into the new borrowing.

While the league said it is pleased to borrow in an extremely illiquid credit market, the deal came at a cost, with interest rates up to 8.27 percent, hammering home the notion that the era of cheap money in sports is over. The 15 teams can use the money for any purpose, but covering operating losses may be high on the list.

Each of the 15 teams can borrow a maximum of $11.66 million from the debt proceeds. -- Sports Business Journal

Sports Illustrated Moves Fantasy Football onto Facebook; Tries to Catch Up

Like it or not, fantasy football is important. According to the New York Times, 15.5 million people play fantasy football each year - about 86% of which are are male and 63% are under age 40. It's also become a $2 billion industry.

So when Sports Illustrated (SI.com) moved their fantasy football to Facebook, two things became apparent:

1) Sports Illustrated isn't the leader in fantasy football and is trying to aggressively catch up 2) Facebook has become completely mainstream and, for the big brands, an avenue for user acquisition (important to note that fantasy football is comprised heavily of adult males as well - so SI is using Facebook to acquire users outside of high school / college)

Sports Illustrated, according to TheBigLead and Comscore, was the ninth most visited sports network on the web... and in fantasy football, Yahoo, ESPN and CBS are the clear leaders. Here are the stats from the last month:

1. Yahoo Sports: 22,752,000 uniques 2. ESPN: 20,601,000 uniques 3. Fox Sports: 15,105,000 uniques 4. MLB.com: 11,917,000 uniques 5. AOL Sports: 10,632,000 uniques 6. WWE: 6,759,000 uniques 7. NBA: 5,740,000 uniques 8. NFL Internet Group: 5,624,000 uniques 9. Sports Illustrated Sites: 4,492,000 uniques 10. NASCAR.com: 3,528,000

Fantasy sports are critical for the major sports networks because they are remarkably sticky, have high switching costs and attract clusters of users. So for Sports Illustrated to run their fantasy offering offsite is very surprising a clear sign (to me) that they are conceded the fantasy game - hoping to win a new market via Facebook's huge audience. It's an interesting effort and perhaps not overly risky considering their position in the market... But unlike CBS's smash hit with the Final Four / Facebook integration, this doesn't seem to have a clear proposition to get users back to SI.com.

Meanwhile, this seems like a big win for Facebook - just as the CBS / March Madness relationship was.

Notice the Facebook promotion atop the story headline

The Application's front door